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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

When composer/saxist John Zorn invited journalists to a pair of weekend shows, his one request was that they would not write about it. Of course, the next thing that happened was that a flurry of angry exchanges were unleashed with some defending Zorn and others calling him crazy and conceited. I was there for one of the shows but I paid for my ticket and wrote about it. Later though, I wondered again about the strange relationships that develop between artists and writers.


A mentor of mine warned me that it was never a good idea to get chummy with musicians. He occasionally broke the rule himself but tried to maintain it in general. My batting average is about the same but I know the reasoning behind this idea—you don’t wanna have to call your friend out on a bad album in print. Even it’s constructive, it can still sting. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thing with other writers—most of the time when you’re asked ‘what do you think of my article,’ they’re really asking ‘could you please find something nice to say about it?’


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Sunday, Mar 9, 2008


Historians hate it when movies take liberties with the archeological truth. From the homoerotic overkill of something like 300, which got blasted for turning Spartans into studly supermodels, to the recent reaming given to The Other Boleyn Girl for Harlequin-ing the reign of Henry VIII, the past gets perverted a great deal of the time. Now, no one is expecting a 100% accurate depiction of events long ago, and the only engaging documentary of the time would be one actually made in said era (Morgan Spurlock presents Renaissance Me!). So in essence, we have to take the good with the bad, the dramatic license with the downright ludicrous (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, anyone?).


Now comes Roland Emmerich’s Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 BC. It mixes and matches its historic perspective in a mishmash of anthropology and inanity. Aside from the fact that several phases of human existence seem to be living within a few days walk of each other, we get beasts and byplay from several significant epochs. Clearly, this pulp popcorn movie is not meant to be an educational trek through time. But one has to wonder what real lessons could be learned from studying the stupidity onscreen. After a weekend of rumination, here are some suggestions for the clear cut instruction it provides. In many cases, the educational elements are more intriguing than the entertainment - or lack thereof:



Great ‘White’ Messiahs Figure Prominently in All Prehistoric Myth


You’d think that only your standard Caucasian clan of the cave bear would worship a bearded, long haired proto-human with magical powers. But back before the actual Christ, almost every wilderness tribe supposedly had a fable focusing on a great white savior. No matter the skin color, tribal make-up, or hunter/gatherer mentality, seems only Anglos can be angels in the prehistoric world.



It Really Was a Territorial Tower of Babel


Language is often called the original prejudice. Even today, it remains a barrier to better understanding and international accord. But back at the dawn of man, people really didn’t communicate with each other, and for good reason - they couldn’t. With broken English the regional standard, few were fluent in either gobbledygook or mumbo jumbo. Some could swing a few words of claptrap. Unintelligible gibberish, on the other hand, remained the true mother tongue.



Reincarnation Rules!


It’s always sad when you lose a loved one. It’s even worse when her death is meant as a symbolic gesture of karmic adjustment and potential narrative melodrama. But there’s no real need to worry - old people’s souls are here! That’s right, as long as the proper cosmic connections are made, and the running time has reached the right point, a dying old coot will supply your dead love with a new infusion of life-giving spirit.



Saber-Toothed Tigers Understand Situational Ethics


So you’re a legendary feline, mouth filled with an impressive pair of torso-tearing incisors. You’re trapped in a hole that is rapidly filling up, flash flood style, with water. You’re about to die when - Eureka! - you’re saved by a waifish caveman. Do you - (a) eat the caveman? (b) eat the caveman? or (c) ignore your eons of instinctual behavior and spare the human, only to later become his benefactor and bodyguard?



Mammoths/ Mastodons Can Really Haul Ass


Wooly and elephantine, few would view these oversized behemoths as Triple Crown contenders. But, apparently, if you get a group of hygienically challenged prairie dwellers with spears made from your relatives chasing after you, it’s Preakness time! That’s right, these two ton terrors are rather fleet of foot when scrawny, hungry Cro-Magnons come calling. Even better, they’ll go Lord of the Rings Mumak on you if given half a chance.



Religious Superstitution = an Empire’s Undoing


So, you’ve mastered engineering, using ancient technology and science to develop complex construction systems. You’re learning is so advanced that you’ve also mastered both land and sea. You even have domain over man and his animal brethren. Yet the minute some gal comes along with a symbolic scar on her hand, you get all gooey. In fact, your false beliefs are so great you instantly find yourself vulnerable to complete destruction. And the value of your faith is what again?



Blue Eyes = Bad Omens


From the most primitive biped to the least Aryan Nazi, Topaz peepers can only mean one thing - troubles a’ brewin’. Though we take it for granted nowadays, and tend to celebrate those who’ve been “blessed” with Cobalt coloration, the indigenous peoples of several eons ago went bonkers upon seeing such an optically gifted individual. Apparently, it has something to do with the rarity of the condition, the startling appearance, and the overall concept of dreaminess.



Oversized Ostrich Buzzards Were the Velociraptros of 10,000 BC


Though they looked like a cornball version of John Dante’s demons from Twilight Zone: The Movie, the gigantic dino-birds of ages part actually resemble their supposed genetic ancestry. They stalk and hunt their prey in high foliage fashion, popping out at predetermined internals to give anyone watching a complimentary jolt. They use their beaks for ripping and shredding. They can climb great heights with little or no predisposition toward same. And they squawk like Hell.



Megalomaniacal Godlike Figures Are Way Too Fashion Conscious


When you’re trying to dictate the direction of your domain’s inhabitants - both natural born and “invited” - it’s imperative that you keep the references to Jean-Paul Gautier and Tarsem to a minimum. You should look like a ruler, a visionary leader of all creatures great and small, not some foreign filmmaker’s fever dream. Covering oneself from head to toe with what looks like a teenage girl’s canopy bed drape is hilarious, not heroic…or haute couture.
 


Sloppy CGI Spectacle Still Fills Seats


Audiences never learn, do they? Even when the reviews indicate that a film will be nothing more than a semi-involving example of cheesy effects and stilted dialogue, they still plunk down their dosh and turn those styles. 10,000 BC raked in over $3,500 per year over the 7 March weekend, taking the number one spot away from position pretenders Raven Simone (College Road Trip) and Jeremy Statham (The Bank Job). Apparently, there’s an equally exponential amount of suckers born every minute.


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Saturday, Mar 8, 2008

One of the big surprises during my recent trip to the big city, was that I came home without a single book. Usually, Melbourne is my number-one place to go for cheap remainders or hard-to-find second hand books. If you’re ever nearby, Arthur Daley’s on Spencer Street should be your first stop, then on and around to Flinders Books on Flinders. Book shopping this trip, however, wasn’t a priority, so a brief wander through a Dymocks was about all I managed.


It was there, though, that I found a really brilliant book, so short I could read it in the store, but a bit too expensive (at $50.00) to take home. The Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense Pop-Up Book (by Kees Moerbeek, Little Simon, 2006)  is, however, now on my eBay watch list. What a stunning book, what an amazing concept—key scenes from Hitchcock’s films rendered in detailed pop-ups. The birds fly off the page, the Vertigo vortex actually spins, and Paul Newman really does stick that guy’s head in the oven.


I had no idea when marveling at this, that pop-up books were in the middle of a major comeback. As early as 2 March, the Sacramento Bee featured two related stories, “Big jump in pop-up books” and “Pop-up star”, with Dixie Reid reporting that pop-up books, once aligned more with toys than literature are now considered “a mainstream format”.


Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tourby Chuck MurphyQuirk Publishing, 2006

Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour
by Chuck Murphy
Quirk Publishing, 2006


In “Pop-up star”, Reid profiles master paper engineer and pop-up book maker David Carter. Carter talks about his designs, how he came to design pop-ups, and his theories on the enjoyment they provide. One of his catchphrases, which appears on the back covers of each of his books is “Please touch the art”.


Last October, Carter and his latest creation, the pop-up version of Horton Hears a Who, starred in an interactive pop-up book exhibition at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Rochester City Newspaper wrote about the event describing it as full of “‘Wow!’ and ‘Look at this!’” moments. Pop-up books, the article notes, have come along way from basic three-dimensional shapes and pull-tabs. Now, pages can resemble mini-theatre stages, making stories move with numerous pull-tabs, complex paper and string structures, bits to lift, other bits to fold.


The Neiman Marcus Pop-Up Book

The Neiman Marcus Pop-Up Book


The Hitchcock book was full of “wow” moments, too. As amazing as one page looked, the next was even better. That awe had as much to do with actual artwork itself—bits of plastic and string holding together these intricate pieces—as it did with the very specific way the creator viewed the scene and then built the pop-up version to match that view.


What frightens us about The Birds, for instance? That they appear larger than life? Or is it the shattering phone booth glass as they repeatedly slam into it, causing too-large cracks? The pop-up book page takes these elements and creates its scene. The angles and shapes on the pages are very deliberate, and so the pop-up book is as much about the representation of a concept as is it is cutting and pasting.


A bit of digging, and I discovered that pop-up books exist for any purpose, and all tastes. Dr Seuss is in pop-up form, as is Alice in Wonderland, and even a recent, limited edition Neiman Marcus celebratory book.


The University of North Texas has a great section on its website devoted to pop-up art. The site’s introduction provides a fascinating history of the art form, from its very first appearance in the 1200s. From the introduction:


The first movable books actually predate the print culture. The earliest known examples of such interactive mechanisms are by Ramón Llull (c.1235-1316) of Majorca, a Catalán mystic and poet. His works contain volvelles or revolving discs, which he used to illustrate his complex philosophical search for truth.


The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordonby Stephen KingArtwork by Dingman, Abrahams, MoerbeekSimon & Schuster, 2004

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Stephen King
Artwork by Dingman, Abrahams, Moerbeek
Simon & Schuster, 2004


Prior to reading this, and to picking up the Hitchcock book, I had no idea pop up books had developed so far in terms of design and purpose. I think of pop-up books and I think of hedgehogs and bunnies just lifting from the centre of a book.


Now I see, for instance, the pop-up of Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, how the pull tabs make the rain fall, and I realize it’s more than childlike fun. It’s about lifting the story out of the page, to make it tangible and real.


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Friday, Mar 7, 2008

What a scandalous week we’ve had: lies, fakery, back-pedalling. Publishers are pulling books left, right, and centre, hoping against hope that we forget the name Margaret B. Jones just as we forgot Kavya Viswanathan a few years back. Industry commentators have had a field day, and will likely continue to as the flames die down. Hard to believe, but there’s been some other newsworthy stuff going on in Book World this week, not least of which was World Book Day, which the Welsh seemed to celebrate harder than anyone else. Freya North revealed revealed she’s so enamored of Gordon Bennett, her daughter thinks he’s the Prime Minister of England. While, the former Prime Minister of England is outed as a CIA agent in a new book (albeit fiction—or is it?).


Here are some other news that caught my deceit-weary eyes:


Eminem is writing his autobiography
Do you think Dutton Books, publishers of Eminem’s upcoming “raw and uncensored” tome, will do their fact-checking? Not that I would doubt Eminem’s integrity as a memoirist. But, you know, in light of recent events… The book, according to the rap star’s publicist will “[offer] a window on the star’s private thoughts on everything from his music and the trials of fame to his love for his daughter, Hailie,”


Frank Portman visits Sacramento State
The author of King Dork talks to Sac State students about writing, teenhood, and old girlfriends. He also describes his rise from punk rocker to literary star: “Portman said it wasn’t even his idea to write a book. One of his fans became a literary agent and presented the idea to Portman. He began with a 20-page demo of what eventually became King Dork. To his surprise, his fan sold the King Dork idea to Random House and gave him the green light to finish on the rest of the novel.”


James Patterson admits he’s less a writer, more a brand
But we all knew that. His honesty in this article, however, is refreshing. The truth of it, though, is frustrating and depressing. I really need to get over my Patterson-hate, right? After all, he has my number: “There are thousand of people don’t like what I do, millions of people do ... fortunately, there are million who do.” This article informs me, though, for the first time, that those co-authored James Patterson books are actually outlines he’s written and given to some else to flesh out. Apparently, these outlines are so strongly detailed that anyone could turn them into novels. I find this weird, as Patterson’s novels are already really choppy outlines for potentially larger works.


Peter Carey says writers are “magicians”
Carey’s quotes at the Adelaide Writers Festival are made slightly more interesting with all the inventing going on over on the bio shelves. The author of His Illegal Self talked to festival goers about his experiences at a hippy commune that informed his newest work. But the ability to invent situations not experienced is what makes a talented writer. “Maybe writers of fiction should insist they are magicians,” he said.


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Friday, Mar 7, 2008

It’s an indicator of the degree to which women’s liberation was at the forefront of American culture in the early 1970s that a book like The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone (subtitle: “The case for feminist revolution”) was not only issued in a mass-market pocket-size paperback by Bantam Books but also sold enough copies to now routinely turn up in thrift stores from Arizona to South Dakota to Delaware, where I bought it for probably the fourth time. I’m trying to imagine this book on a Rexall’s rack in 1970, and what sort of consumer would have been drawn in by this cover line: “The HUMAN ALTERNATIVE to 1984—a slashing attack on male supremacy that charts the end of the sexual class system.” It’s hard to conceive of our culture being this interested in feminism, to the extent where a fairly radical version of it could be advertised as a selling point rather than be regarded as an awkward embarrassment. Women’s lib was a mainstream consideration that must have seemed omnipresent relative to our own “post-feminist” epoch.


But was that just because its novelty could be exploited commercially by the media industries? I wonder if transforming women’s lib into Bantam paperbacks wasn’t some way of attempting to neutralize the threat, turn feminism into another shoddy, sensationalized product that could be consumed as fantasy by some Stepford Wife who had the little book stashed away in a handbag and could secretly thrill to exhortations to abolish childhood and traditional sex roles, or could be dismissed as mass-produced crap, as pop psychology or specious self-help, or could be read as an alarming warning of the crazy things these women’s libbers had in mind. (It’s generally a good reactionary strategy to find the most extreme voices for the reform you oppose and try to popularize the idea that they are representative of the movement as a whole.)


In general, the mass-produced paperback format has the effect of bathing the work in the aura of disposable entertainment. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous trade paperback (for me anyway) has an effect of gentrifying ideas, making them into dainty knick-knacks on my intellectual mantelpiece. Because publishers are so complicit with capitalism, their material products end up embodying capitalist ideals, even if the ideas in the pages are undiluted Marxist propaganda. Maybe that means the Web will be a better source for the promulgation of radical ideas?


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